Fighting in Front of Your Kids and Why You Need to Stop
5 tips for ending arguments.
As I've gotten older the finely etched memories of my childhood have become like frayed pieces of paper -- I can still recall them -- but they're no longer as crisp and coherent as they once were. And yet the memories I have of my parents and their arguments have remained. Like frames of a movie, I can instantly recall the setting, the scene and the fierce, cutting dialogue that transpired between them.
As a 6-year-old girl riding the big yellow school bus, choking back tears, I was hopeful that my parents' morning argument, which escalated as my sister and I headed out the door, would fade into oblivion by the time I returned home that afternoon. And like almost every argument my parents had, its aftermath followed an eerily similar path; silence and the quiet understanding that it was never to be discussed or unearthed again.
When I had my own kids, I vowed that I would never, under any circumstances allow them to bear witness to more than a friendly verbal disagreement between my husband and me. I'm also a big believer in the fact that showing one's kids that marriage and life is not always the neat, pretty package it's portrayed as in various fairy tales and TV episodes. In real life a relationship is a daily lesson in compromise which will lend itself to many disagreements. I think it's how you handle those disagreements -- especially when they're in full view for your children's consumption, that you teach them about fighting fair and dare I say it, healthfully.
Unfortunately despite my best intentions, I have allowed my temper and my husband's idiosyncratic behaviors to get the better of me and have engaged with my husband, despite my better judgment, in several long-drawn out arguments in front of my kids. However, when in the midst of our antics my 5-year-old son, who I was convinced would be more wrapped up in his Lego castle than my husband and I battling it out, tugged on my sleeve and said, "mommy when you and daddy fight you are breaking my heart," I knew something needed to change.
Upon hearing those words, I truly felt my own heart blocking my airway passage, I could barely utter the words "I'm sorry." His statement cut right through whatever drama we were arguing about and I knew I had made an indelible imprint on his memory, one that I am hoping will fade away as he gets older, but of course there are no guarantees. Still his words have forced me to attempt a 180 in terms of how I relate to my husband, especially when we're within ear shot of our kids.
Still I needed some expert reinforcement in this area and I asked Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage to give me her take on fighting in front of your kids.
According to Dr. Tessina, couples should definitely negotiate and discuss many issues in the presence of their children. It teaches the kids how relationships work. However, fighting and arguing in front of the kids teaches them that fighting and arguing is OK, which it is not. It is dysfunctional, and should not be seen as "normal." It's parents acting like kids.
"Fighting in front of kids also raises the anxiety level in children, because it threatens their secure home environment," says Dr. Tessina. "Children who see their parents fight or argue worry about divorce. They also do not learn healthy, effective negotiation skills."
Dr. Tessina's 5 Tips for Not Fighting
No matter what you're fighting about: money, sex, kids or something else, the fighting is an indication that your communication isn't working. If this happens only occasionally, such as when one or both of you are tired or stressed; it's not too big a problem. However, if you argue or bicker on a daily or weekly basis, or you keep fighting about the same thing over and over, then your communication is not functioning as it should, and you don't know how to move from a problem to the solution. When this happens, problems are recurrent, endless, and they can be exaggerated into relationship disasters.
Disagreements always require two people. If you don't participate, your partner can't argue without you. If the issue arises at an inopportune time, you can just find a temporary resolution (temporarily give in, go home, leave the restaurant) and wait until things calm down to discuss what happened (the squabble may just have been a case of too much alcohol, or being tired and irritable.) Then talk about what you can do instead if it ever happens again.
Discuss Recurring Problems
To resolve recurring problems, discuss related decisions with your spouse and find out what each of you does and does not want before making important decisions. You have a lot of options; so don't let confusion add to the stress.
Seek to Understand
Make sure you and your partner understand each others' point of view before beginning to solve the problem. You should be able to put your mate's position in your own words, and vice versa. This does not mean that you agree with each other, just that you understand each other.
Solve It for the Two of You
Come up with a solution that works for just the two of you, ignoring anyone else's needs. It's much easier to solve a problem for the two of you than for others you may not understand. After you are clear with each other, discuss the issues with others who may be involved.
Talk to Others
If extended family members or friends might have problems with your decision, talk about what objections they might have, so you can diffuse them beforehand. Discuss possible ways to handle their objections.
Squabbles often occur because you're following automatic habit patterns that lead to a problem before you know it. Using these guidelines will help you overcome negative habit patterns you may have built that lead to arguments or bickering.